Khalifa University
Khalifa University research team Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University of Science and Technology is leading a team of researchers to work with universities across the world to investigate how the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 jumped from animals to humans.

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause diseases in animals like bats, as well as in mammals and birds. The virus responsible for COVID-19, Sars-CoV-2 is the third coronavirus known to have jumped from animals to humans in the past three decades.

The Khalifa University team is conducting the research as part of its COVID-19 Research and Development Task Force, which includes multidisciplinary researchers from the UAE, US, China, Singapore and Australia. Collaborators from across the Middle East, North America, Europe, South East and North East Asia, as well as Australia, will collect animal samples for the study.

According to Dr Habiba Alsafar, director at the university’s Centre for Biotechnology, the current COVID-19 outbreak is an example of zoonosis, which refers to diseases that can be transmitted to humans from animals. The disease is caused by a coronavirus (CoV) that is believed to have originated in bats and transmitted to humans.

There have been two major coronavirus outbreaks in recent history – the 2002 epidemic that was caused by the SARS-CoV, and the 2012 MERS-CoV outbreak. All three coronaviruses share a common entry point into the cells of humans and other animals, through a receptor known as ACE2, with the assistance of another protein known as TMPRSS2.

“These are what the virus sees on the surface of the cell and understanding their similarity across different animals will provide clues on how the virus is transmitted. Other international groups including researchers from other countries have already expressed interest in joining the effort on studying the human and viral elements of the disease. We cannot beat the virus without cooperation, as it knows no geographical boundaries,” Dr Alsafar said.

Originally conceived by Khalifa University faculty members, the project titled ‘The identification of conserved groves in the host cell receptors that bind and facilitate coronavirus (CoV) entry into mammalian cells’, is already underway.

“The project to identify the cause of COVID-19 transmission from animals to humans showcases our commitment to collectively find a solution to this global healthcare threat. This cross-border collaboration brings together the required expertise from renowned academic institutions to directly address scientific uncertainties that surround COVID-19. We believe this research project will provide answers regarding the transmission of coronavirus between humans and animals while also providing insights that may help limit the transmission of COVID-19,” said Dr. Steve Griffiths, senior vice president for research and development at the university.

Dr Alsafar is the principal investigator, and the Khalifa University team includes Dr Wael Osman, assistant professor for Chemistry, Dr Samuel Feng, assistant professor of Mathematics and Dr Herbert Jelinek, associate professor of Biomedical Engineering. Other collaborators in the UAE include Dr Khaled Amiri at Al Ain University, and Dr Khaled Hazzouri at UAE University. The project also boasts international collaborators from the University of Florida, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science, Murdoch University in Australia and Singapore, and well as the University of Western Australia.

The team members have expertise in medicine, molecular genetics, bioinformatics, veterinary science, and epidemiology, which will be relevant to this project as the study encompasses epidemiology, comparative genome science, protein modelling and simulation. The aim is to identify the traits that mammals share which allows the virus to transfer from one species to another.